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Rocket Science Can Be a Roadmap for Life, Says this Astrophysics Alum

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By Lindsay Lennon

You’ve heard the expression “it’s not rocket science”—meaning that the topic at hand is comparatively simple. But in his breakthrough 2020 book, Ozan Varol ’03—who contributed to two Mars Rover missions as an undergrad—rejects the idea that designing a voyage to the cosmos is inherently unfathomable to all but the most rarified experts.

Instead, in Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life, he turns its basic principles into a straightforward blueprint to achieving your own dreams.

“Smart and witty,” said a review in Publishers Weekly, “Varol’s masterful analysis explains complicated scientific principles and connects them to ordinary life for a mainstream audience.”

Varol’s own nonlinear path embodies the advice he offers. He immigrated from Turkey at 17 to study astrophysics on the Hill; he worked under Steven Squyres ’78, PhD ’81 (now a professor emeritus of astronomy), scientific principal investigator on the Mars Rover project.

Book cover of Think Like a Rocket Scientist by Ozan Varol.

After earning a JD at the University of Iowa and working as a law clerk and attorney, Varol joined the faculty at Lewis & Clark Law School—but in 2021, a year after Rocket Scientist made a splash, he realized that academia wasn’t the right path for him.

“We tend to see what we’ve done previously in life, and left behind, as a waste,” Varol observes from his home in Portland, Oregon, which he shares with his wife and two dogs, Einstein and Sputnik. “But I think it’s a compost pile that you can use as fertilizer for what’s awakening. That’s certainly been true for me.”

Varol’s own nonlinear path embodies the advice he offers.

Rocket Scientist garnered Varol a slew of invitations as a corporate speaker, and he has since become an in-demand guest at conferences and private events for such firms as Microsoft, Intel, and Adidas, and even the U.S. Navy.

To the delight of fellow Cornellians, he was the keynote speaker at the annual Cornell Alumni Leadership Conference in San Diego in February 2023. This summer, he’ll deliver the Olin Lecture at Reunion—mainly focusing on content from his latest book, Awaken Your Genius, published in April 2023.

A man in a brown jacket speaking to an audience
Varol has become a popular speaker, at Big Red events and beyond.

In his Rocket Scientist­-inspired talks, Varol presents a series of concrete steps toward accomplishing life goals both modest and grand—from learning an instrument to leaping into an entirely new career—and applies the practical scientific thinking that he says can help you get there.

The process he explores is rooted in “moonshot thinking,” best embodied by President John F. Kennedy’s audacious 1962 declaration that the U.S. would walk on the moon by 1969; Varol employs it to describe a leap in work or life.

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“Moonshot thinking is a combination of idealism and pragmatism,” he explains. “It’s aiming high, but combining it with a concrete roadmap for getting there.”

Moonshot thinking is a combination of idealism and pragmatism.

It’s a practice Varol says has guided him since childhood.

Growing up in a small apartment in Istanbul with unreliable electricity, he recalls, the frequent outages frightened him; to entertain him in the darkness, his father used a soccer ball and a lit candle to illustrate the Earth traveling around the sun.

“Those were my first astronomy lessons,” Varol says. “I was hooked. And my own moonshot became being an astronaut one day.”

Book cover of Awaken Your Genius by Ozan Varol

In his middle school library, he researched the backgrounds of every NASA astronaut, using their career paths to fashion one for himself.

He learned English, taught himself computer programming, and was admitted to Cornell—a dream institution for Varol, who idolized Carl Sagan and devoured the famed astronomer’s “Cosmos” TV series as a kid.

In Awaken Your Genius—which debuted at number three on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list—Varol challenges readers to follow his example and (in the words of the subtitle) “escape conformity, ignite creativity, and become extraordinary.”

How? By unshackling themselves from their preconceived identities, discovering their true desires, and embracing their idiosyncrasies as their biggest strengths.

“This book is for aspiring universe denters,” Varol writes in the introduction.

“It’s a practical book for impractical people. It will give you the tools you need to wake up and find yourself—and to discover the melodies that only you can play in the symphony of life.”

Varol will deliver the Olin Lecture at Reunion ’23 from 3–4 p.m. on Friday, June 9, in Bailey Hall (it will also be livestreamed and available for viewing after the event). You can also sign up for his weekly emails; each one contains a big idea you can read about in three minutes or less.

(All photos provided.)

Published May 17, 2023


  1. Susan Urig, Class of 1979

    As a Cornell Law grad ’79, I was exposed to Ozan Varol’s writing when my son was in Professor Varol’s Constitutional Law class at Lewis and Clark Law School.

    Our son and I live and practice law in Anchorage, Alaska, and although Alex will be working on Friday, I will look forward to the livestream of the Olin Lecture.

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